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Deep dive: Behind-the-scenes data on a Steam F2P game

Robot Squid and Spilt Milk share data on the PC performance of King of Crabs, its free-to-play mobile-PC battle royale game

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by 'how people find your game' expert and GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

We're happy to showcase an in-depth analysis of one particular Steam game in this article. And we're particularly excited because this is one of the first ever 'behind the scenes' data sets we've seen for a free-to-play game on Steam.

The title in question is multiplayer 'crab battle royale' game King of Crabs, which has an impressive 4,900 Steam reviews at 79% Positive. Thanks to Robot Squid's Chris Dawson and Spilt Milk's Andrew Smith for being willing to share. So let's get to it!

King of Crabs: Behind the scenes on Steam?

Just to set the scene: King of Crabs was already a successful mobile game - on both iOS and on Android - before coming to Steam in mid-2020. But its fun arcade-y gameplay and controls (and good quality art direction, actually) lends itself pretty well to a PC version of the title. This is unlike many other touch-centric F2P titles on mobile.

So essentially, you're on an island with a bunch of other (99!) crustaceans, you need to eat and kill other players to get bigger, and may the most gigantic crab win. (Is this game inspired by Crab Rave in any way?) Oh, and as a Steam review notes excitedly: "this game doesn't only limit itself to crabs, it also has lobsters, turtles, AND spiders."

Here's a couple of disclaimers before we start. The devs asked that we not showcase exact revenue, which is fair enough, since they're being so transparent with everything else. (We'll cover the revenue curve in abstract.) But first here's a video so you can fully grok it before we get going:

Inside a Steam F2P title: overall stats

Let's kick this off by looking at the Steam overview page for King of Crabs. This has a few things that might seem a bit, uh, weird to those of us used to looking at premium (paid) titles:

Firstly, yep, almost 1 million downloads is super impressive. And look, 0 units returned cos you can't return 'em - something we'd love to see for our regular paid games, hah. Lifetime unique users, at 760,000 players, is about 82% of the total amount of players who decided to add the game to their library.

Also notable: King of Crabs' free-Steam-license-to-review ratio is 187:1, and its unique-user-to-review ratio is 153:1. These are both way larger than paid game sales/review ratios of 20 to 60, even though you get some falloff between adding, downloading and playing. (We heard most F2P games operate in the 100+ ratio area?)

Side note: this '82% of those who added it to their library played it' fall-off is less than paid games, which seem to have 90%+ purchase/play ratio, unless bundles or extreme discounts are in play. But for free prologues for premium games? I have an example where only 63% of those who added it to the library played it. So it can vary.

We won't be printing actual revenue, as mentioned. But just to give you an idea of what the revenue curve looks for King of Crabs:

For context, the game doesn't have any store DLC directly sold on Steam. All the revenue is from individual purchaseable items in the game, running through Steam Wallet. Each of these cost anything from $1 to $120 - mainly via in-game currency called Pearls.

We asked Robot Squid's Chris Dawson about monetization on Steam, and he said: "The biggest difference we've found on Steam compared to mobile is players are much more sensitive about pay to win. We give a lot away, and everything can be earned for free over time. But we've had to make a few design and communication changes in that area to reduce the negative reviews."

As you can see, the games-as-a-service and microtransaction approach is much more steady revenue than a premium game on Steam. Those tend to have a revenue curve that looks way more spiky. Here's an example, from our Academia: School Simulator deep-dive:

Of course, one of the reasons for the spikiness for Academia is the ability to put your game in sales, thus triggering wishlist emails and alerts for Steam players.

But for a F2P Steam game, an email is only ever sent out from Steam to wishlisters once, on the game's launch (!) Crazy, huh? This makes it tricky to get extra Steam platform promotion after launch for games like King of Crabs.

Download numbers, countries for Steam F2P games…

Next up, let's look at the curve of downloads of the free King of Crabs Steam client, in the few months since it's been out. Obviously, as with all games, it's had a tail after release. (Hence the average of 3,700 downloads per day.)

But even nowadays, it's doing around 2,000 downloads a day, every day. Impressive:

We asked Andrew Smith at Spilt Milk about the download spikes, and unsurprisingly, he thinks many of them were streamer related. He noted that July/August's strong performance was down "to some big PC streamers who picked it up - notably xQcOW and Sodapoppin."

Some of the other spikes can be tentatively attributed similarly. Andrew noted a high-profile Thai streamer named Takadoto, and we also found this Vietnam-based MixiGaming video with more than 1 million views possibly timed to that November spike, as well as a promotional push in China via some TikTok influencers.

Robot Squid's Chris Dawson also weighed in on PC streamer buzz helping boost the game as a whole: "The other interesting observation is that launching the Steam version had the inadvertent and sustained effect of dragging up mobile downloads and spending - which I assume is due to the extra buzz around the game."

If you look only at King of Crabs downloads over the last three months, there's one particularly fascinating trend. It looks like F2P game downloads actually go down during the Steam Winter Sale:

This year's Steam Winter sale was from December 22nd, 2020 to January 5th, 2021, so that syncs up with the dip in activations. And it makes sense, because the Steam UI is heavily rearranged to favor Winter Sale promotions at that time.

Incidentally, we talked to other Steam F2P devs about whether it's worth going the 'Steam paid DLC' route. You can at least put those in Steam sales for visibility. But the issue seems to be that you don't get many wishlist additions for DLC, so the upside is limited. (Ping us if you think this is wrong, though!)

Next, let's look at player count for King of Crabs. Steam reveals that the average daily active users for the game on Steam is 7,284, and the all-time maximum was 21,383. Here's the player count graph over time, showing daily active users steady at around 5,000 in recent weeks:

(And a word on concurrently connected users. It is a very important stat, and you can see King of Crabs' Steam CCUs here on SteamCharts average 200 in the last 30 days. But since the game has Android and iOS versions with many times the players, and the player-base blends, the Steam-only CCU is less relevant. The multiplatform player-base is large enough to ward off 'this game is dead' complaints...)

Even better, we can look at current players by region. And it's here that we see significantly different numbers from premium games.

Notably, some more F2P-friendly territories like Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea), Russia, and Brazil team up with the US for over 50% of the countries playing King of Crabs:

But there's still a mass of different countries each providing 1-2% of the players, showing true geographic diversity due to the low (well, zero!) cost of entry. This varies significantly from most premium Steam games we've seen.

Paid games also often have the US and China leading the pack, but then include Germany, France, the UK, Canada, and Australia way higher up the list. (And you certainly would almost never see Thailand and Vietnam in the Top 5 paid Steam game countries.)

Wishlists and a conclusion

Just bringing it home, we thought we'd highlight wishlists for King of Crabs, even though this is an odd situation for F2P titles. We've heard another F2P dev suggest that followers are more important that wishlists for F2P Steam games, since followers will get all-important news updates. Nonetheless:

Wishlist deletions are a bit lower as a percentage than would be expected in paid games. But activations are bigger than the Steam wishlist balance! This is completely different from premium titles, which have purchases as about one-third to one-fifth of wishlist balance. This shows that Steam wishlists are used more for 'bookmarking' and convert easier for F2P titles.

Here's the wishlist action graph, in case you're curious:

Finally, here's the daily wishlist actions graph. You can see those previously discussed spikes in July and November showing up. Plus, you can spot that almost complete lack of wishlist additions in the Winter Sale:

So that's what the Steam back-end graphs look like for a successful F2P title. Of course, it isn't as easy as just releasing a game for free and letting good things happen. Getting noticed in the F2P space isn't that easy, especially on mobile if you don't have some serious paid user acquisition backing.

How about ads, though? Steam F2P games often lack ads because many ad networks are mobile-specific nowadays, and because of negative player reaction. Robot Squid's Chris Dawson did tell us: "We do show adverts on iOS & Android for King of Crabs, most of which are incentivised. So this is a revenue stream that is missing on Steam."

However, he added, "…players on Steam spend more on IAPs on average than mobile, so this makes up for it."

Overall, titles like King of Crabs show that you can have a well-reviewed, successful Steam F2P title if you make the right moves. And having 750,000 players of your game on Steam alone (the total over PC, Android and iOS is more than 10 million!) is gratifying reach. Especially given an industry where paid Steam games sometimes struggle to reach 5,000 units sold.

Obviously, King of Crabs is probably making the majority of its revenue off-Steam. But its Steam presence is still useful and profitable for the devs, and entertaining for the players.

[GameDiscoverCo is a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and more.]

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